A newly expanded partnership between Los Alamos National Laboratory and Navajo Technical University (NTU) is helping foster a STEM-adept workforce ready to contribute to a high-tech, clean-energy future with a concentration on fuel-cell technology and additive manufacturing.
The Department of Energy recently helped expand Los Alamos’ partnerships with NTU by establishing the Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Technology Office (HFTO) Native American Fellowship, a pilot program that offers Lab internships for NTU students, connects students with real-world research experiences and funds the purchase of advanced scientific equipment installed at the tribal university. The new program is also supported by and builds upon similar efforts from the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA’s) Minority Serving Institutions Partnership Program.
“What makes great science is the development of people,” said Tommy Rockward, a materials scientist at Los Alamos and the principal investigator for the new pilot program. “In our collaborations with Navajo Tech, we’re putting students at the forefront of cutting-edge research, where their contributions are enormous and where they get a sense of belonging and success. When they then come to the Lab or start a career in industry, they know what the research is about.”
Practical experience with hydrogen fuel cells
Navajo Technical University, based in Crownpoint, New Mexico, on the Navajo Nation, is the largest tribal university in the United States. In the HFTO fellowship pilot program that began this year, seven NTU students work as Los Alamos interns. Students do research with additive manufacturing, building on an existing NTU specialty area, and advance materials essential to the development of fuel cells. These devices produce electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen from the air and produce zero emissions when used to power vehicles.
Jasmine Charley, a member of the Diné tribe from Chi Chil Tah, New Mexico, and a first-generation college student, completed her bachelor’s degree in biology last year at NTU and is completing an associate’s degree in mathematics that will prepare her for a doctoral program. Meanwhile, as an intern in the HFTO program, she is applying the experience in electrochemistry she’s gained at NTU to a Los Alamos project researching the corrosion-resistance properties of materials used in hydrogen fuel cells — technology that represents “the future,” to her thinking.
“When I was younger, people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up,” said Charley. “My answer was always a scientist. So far this position has been a dream come true. I’m obtaining more advanced knowledge on electrochemistry, and I’m basing the Ph.D. programs I’m applying to on that. It’s a pretty big deal.”
Jonathon Chinana, of Torreon, in Sandavol County, is a member of the Diné tribe and Jemez Pueblo. Also a first-generation college student, he is finishing his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering alongside an associate’s degree in mathematics. In his Los Alamos internship, he’s developing a mini electronic device used to control micro-sized fuel cells. Like Charley, he spent part of the summer studying fuel-cell technology at the Laboratory.
“I’d never been introduced to fuel cells before this,” Chinana said. “So the summer was doing research and reading articles, and then developing a schematic of a device.”
The program has helped each student chart a course for the future. Chinana is weighing graduate education along with the possibility of working at a research institution like Los Alamos. In her plans for graduate education, Charley aims to pursue biomedical engineering, using micro- and nano-materials to develop devices that contribute to health.
“The community I grew up in was very small,” said Charley. “I never thought I’d hold a bachelor’s degree or be employed by the national lab. It’s all new to me, so sometimes I’m nervous, and doubt myself, but I get a lot of reassurance from my mentors at the Lab and at NTU. Sometimes you don’t realize the cool thing you’re doing until someone tells you.”
Co-principal investigators Scott Halliday and Monsoru Ramoni, professors at NTU, work with students, with guidance and mentorship also coming from Laboratory researchers. In addition to the internships, the HFTO program has built on Navajo Tech’s strength in electrochemistry by funding the purchase and installation of electrochemical equipment at the university for manufacturing, characterizing and testing materials. The new tools match the state-of-the-art equipment found at the Laboratory.
The HFTO pilot program grows out of a Lab-NTU collaboration born in 2021 from a DOE minority-serving partnership program centered on hydrogen and fuel-cell research, with the additional goal of meeting workforce development needs for the burgeoning hydrogen and fuel-cell industries. Agreements with hydrogen and fuel-cell industry leaders support NTU doing research on novel materials relevant to actual industry and technological challenges.
Harnessing potential from untapped talent
Los Alamos has actually worked with NTU for over seven years to shape curricula through the NNSA’s Minority Serving Institution Partnership Program, a separate but related collaboration to align the university’s STEM curriculum to match needs in the national security enterprise and prepare students for careers and advanced degrees. A range of outreach activities promote science and research to students to build a pipeline of students. Research opportunities are the final piece of the program, as students gain skills in manufacturing, characterizing and testing materials.
Those projects can often be extended at Los Alamos, a satisfactory outcome for students and for the Lab, as they embark on this next phase of partnership.
“In order for Los Alamos to continue to be the best science laboratory possible, we need to look for talent everywhere,” said Rockward. “We need to diversify, and Navajo Technical University is a local institution that has untapped resources.”
The program represents the Laboratory’s commitment to be a force for good in the community.